Ecology Game SavannaScapes—Our Wildest Game Yet

Ecology Game SavannaScapes—Our Wildest Game Yet

Written by Meredith S. Palmer, Ph.D.

SimplyFun enlisted Ecologist & PBS’s Life at the Waterhole, Meredith S. Palmer, Ph.D to help us create an immersive Serengeti ecology board game that is one wild ride!

Ecology Board Game- SavannaScapes- Board Game to learn about ecology on the Serengeti Mara

To a scientist, understanding an ecosystem as mindbogglingly complex as the African savanna can be a true brainteaser. Dozens of species, ranging from minute insects to the largest land mammals have their lives shaped by—and sometimes, shape in turn—a diverse mosaic of grassland, woodland, dryland, and wetland habitats.

While the savanna can be a theoretical puzzle, I’d never thought about its potential as a literal game until I was contacted by SimplyFun to advise on their newest project, SavannaScapes. I am an ecologist (a researcher who studies how species interact with each other and their habitats) who has been working in the Serengeti-Mara savanna ecosystem in eastern Africa for almost a decade. For the most part, it’s hard to get me to shut up about my work and the animals I study, so it was a joy to be contacted by a group that wanted not only to hear all my facts, but to share them with kids around the world.

Ecology Board Game- SavannaScapes- Board Game to learn about ecology on the Serengeti Mara

Advising Ecologist to SavannaScapes-Ecology Board Game

I worked with SimplyFun over the course of a year to create a board game experience that immerses the player in the wild and wonderful (emphasis on the “wild”) world of the African savanna.

The goal of SavannaScapes is to teach young learners about the different roles that animals play in their dynamic and ever-changing environment. When the prototype finally arrived at my door, I tested the efficacy of game in true scientific form by recruiting a pool of (more or less) willing volunteers.

My study subjects: two nieces, aged two and four, and a pre-teen nephew who is a wizard at table-top gaming.

While my nieces were perhaps a bit too young to truly grasp the intricacies of the Serengeti migration or the importance of pollinators for revitalizing savanna plant biodiversity, we spent long hours paging through the game’s fact book, learning about species that they had never seen before. Everyone came away with a new favorite animal: while I was unable to sell them on the charms of my top pick, the leopard tortoise, Niece #1 is now a big fan of the lilac breasted roller and Niece #2 is star-struck by the poop-collecting capabilities of the industrious dung beetle.

"But sitting down to face off against my nephew struck home what an incredible medium this game is for learning about ecological concepts".

Ecology Board Game- SavannaScapes- Board Game to learn about ecology on the Serengeti Mara
Now, unfortunately, ten years as a savanna ecologist did not help me win against a board game-savvy 12-year-old boy. My nephew quickly amassed wins by cottoning on to the concept of keystone species. While the African savanna is a favorite set for wildlife drama in TV and magazines, the lens is often drawn towards the large, charismatic animals that dominate the landscape. Hours of screen time go to giraffe, hippos, and lions—but what about the krill? The frogs? The insects? Each of these ‘characters’ play an outsized part in keeping this ecosystem functioning, but few people outside of the small sphere of savanna specialists give them their due. In SavannaScapes, identifying these keystone species can score you critical extra points.
Before playing, I can guarantee the nephew would have promptly fallen asleep if I’d sat him down for a discussion of, say, the functional importance of aardvark burrows in providing homes for ground-dwelling Serengeti species; by the end of our first game, he was lecturing me on the vital role of species ranging from termites to Thomson’s gazelle.

A wildly immersive introduction to the Serengeti Savanna

Not only did SimplyFun want to ensure that the information presented was technically correct, but they put in the effort to shape gameplay around the real-life dynamics of the Serengeti savanna. The savanna may be vast and unending, but it is far from unchanging. This is a highly capricious landscape, either dry to the bone or soaking wet, bursting with plant life or grazed down to bare ground; fires and storms sweep through the ecosystem with seasonal regularity, reshaping the varied habitats that animals live in.

Describing to my family how African savanna species adapt to these pivotal events as we populated and perturbed our miniature tile landscapes was surprisingly reminiscent of conversations I have with other scientists when we work to understand the forces that tie these systems together.

This game exposes its players to the questions that “real” researchers are actively exploring on a daily basis, providing a window into this world for the future scientist (or at least, the curious mind) inside every child.

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